GOP Senate prez under fire for state transportation tax plan

Reaction from conservative lawmakers and their allies to a transportation bill introduced Wednesday afternoon has been swift and from some, brutal.

The plan would seek voter approval to increase the state sales tax from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent. The sales tax would be used to obtain $3.5 billion in bonds to pay for road and other transportation projects statewide.

Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, and Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican from Cañon City, are the bill’s chief sponsors, along with the chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees.

But the measure’s introduction prompted harsh criticism from Grantham’s fellow Republicans in the Senate, including his second-in-command, Majority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker. It also drew howls of outrage today from House Republicans, who claim they never saw the bill before it was rolled out.

In addition to seeking a sales tax increase, the bill lays out how the money will be spent. The first $300 million in sales tax —out of about $677 million that the increase would bring in annually—would go to the state highway fund to be used by the Department of Transportation (CDOT) for its projects. CDOT would then be able to obtain the bonds to pay for the big-ticket projects on its list.

Of the remaining dollars, 70 percent would go to counties and municipalities, and the last 30 percent would be socked into a “multimodal transportation options fund” that would pay for transit and rail projects, a major priority for Democrats in the negotiations. There’s also a separate “pedestrian and active transportation account” designed to pay for sidewalks and bicycle paths.

The bill also requires that projects to be paid for by CDOT’s portion of the funds be identified in the November voter guide known as the “Blue Book.”

That may be critical to the ballot measure’s passage. The most recent effort to ask for voter support for transportation funding, Referendum D in 2005, failed in part because voters said they did not know enough about how the money would be spent.

Grantham told reporters this morning that passage of the proposal will not be easy, and the battle may be hardest fought in the state Senate. “This will be difficult for our side, there’s no secret about that,” he said.

He also responded to critics on Twitter, including prospective gubernatorial candidate George Braucher, the district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, who called the compromise a “surrender.”

“We’ll see what the people say in November of this year and November of next year,” Grantham said. “The problem is not new. If any governor candidates have a better solution, where is it?”

Closer to home, however, came criticisms from Holbert and from House Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock. Grantham also took heat from Michael Fields, state director for Americans for Prosperity Colorado, which favors a transportation solution funded by budget cuts. Fields sent out a tweet targeting Holbert and the four Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Fields indicated he believes the proposal will have its toughest audience.

Holbert responded almost immediately: “I’ll be a ‘no’ vote,” he said.

Fields also posted:

Another indication of how well this is playing among the most conservative members of the General Assembly came from Neville this afternoon.

“A $677 million dollar tax increase is not the solution to Colorado’s problems and I will aggressively oppose the passage of this bill,” Neville said in a news release. “I am very disappointed that House Republican leadership and the House Republican caucus was excluded from the discussions of this bill and expect significant opposition from House Republicans as a result.”

He won’t be disappointed. Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan told The Colorado Independent he’d almost prefer seeing the reclassification of the hospital provider fee (a bookkeeping maneuver that would have freed up millions for transportation, K-12 education and health care), than to ask voters for more money through increased sales taxes, which he said will be a tough sell in rural Colorado, where the agricultural economy is already struggling because of low commodity prices.

His Senate counterpart, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, was a little more circumspect today, and also hinted that the bill will see major changes if and when it reaches the Senate. As President Pro Tem, Sonnenberg serves in a liaison role with the House, including the House Democrats.

“I support my president and Sen. Baumgardner [Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee] in their efforts to figure out transportation funding in our state,” Sonnenberg told The Independent today. The bill introduced in the House is not the bill that will be passed in the Senate, he added. “There are things we are going to add and deal with” when it reaches the Senate chambers, but he declined to be more specific.

The proposal’s first stop will be the House Transportation and Energy Committee, which is made up of eight Democrats and five Republicans, including Becker. The date of its hearing has yet to be announced.

“There are good things in the bill, things both sides will be happy with and tough things that both sides will sweat over,” Grantham said this morning. “At the end of the day, if we’re successful, we’ll have a ballot measure for the people this November, and let them decide in the spirit of TABOR whether we’ll have a tax increase to fix the things that we hear in town halls, emails and phone calls and when we walk down Main Street in our hometowns: what will you do about transportation and what are you doing to fix it?”

“Let the discussion begin,” Grantham said.


Photo credit: Rudi Riet, via Creative Commons license, Flickr